Ride the Mustang
High-altitude mountain biking in the Himalayas
To say that Mustang took my breath away would be a gasping understatement. In every sense of the phrase, this high-rise ancient Himalayan land did just that. My real journey started in Pokhara, which is about 100 km south of my base in the Mustang region and about 200 km northwest of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. It had been 20 years since I was in Nepal. Everything was far more developed, but in a good way. There were some great comforts between wild rides into the mountains. Sadly for Pokhara, the dreaded smog, smoke and dust that plagues Kathmandu also seems to fall over the town. I found it unbearable. Taking a 10-hour dusty, bumpy dirt road ride from Pokhara through the Annapurna foothills to Jomsom (which is some 2,800 m above sea-level) seemed like a convenient escape plan. In hindsight, the 20-minute
morning flight would have been a much wiser option, but at least I did see some interesting sights along the way. The last part of the drive would make for a great ride back toward Pokhara.
An arid, desert-like, windswept area surrounded by neck-straining snow-capped peaks lay at the end of that dusty drive. Rumbling out of the narrow valley and onto the higher, more open valley plains of Lower Mustang is almost like passing into another world.
It was a holy week, right after the Nepalese New Year in mid-april. The area was at its most busy with pilgrims making their way to the shrine at Muktinath, which, at 3,700 m high, sits perched way above Jomsom. This exodus was great to see, but it did mean that there was traffic around, which causes some serious dust at times.
Jomsom is a small one-yak kind of place, with limited electricity and facilities, a distinct mountain chill and a very Tibetan feel to it. The Mustang region used to be the Kingdom of Lo. It can evoke James Hilton’s 1933 novel Losthorizon.
Early starts are essential here as the wind builds by late morning, creating dust clouds and making the going very tough. As we rode out into the chilled morning air, the sky was a perfect blue. We could see faded, snow-covered peaks rising toward 7,000 m high in most directions.
There’s a wide and rough, dry riverbed leading away from Jomsom, which makes for a comparatively gentle introduction to the riding here – a time for acclimatization for most, but not for us. We were on our own two-wheeled pilgrimage to the dizzy and heart-pumping heights of Muktinath, which should be two to three days of riding away, all of it uphill. We skipped much of the climbing to seek out the vastly more fun high-ground singletrack, and of course the descending.
As we were cherry picking our rides around this lunarlike valley, I stopped dead in my tracks. Our thunder had been stolen by an old man on a steel roadster. He was descending one-footed like a demon back down into the valley. He’d pushed and pedalled his way to the shrine and was heading back to, well, exactly where I have no idea. What a sight – a true Himalayan flyer.
Muktinath was to be the high point of our riding: from there on it was all downhill. The scenery was stunning, and the riding wasn’t far behind either. There are deep valleys with superbly natural and very technical singletrack spun around every corner. It’s an absolute paradise.
“Jomsom is a small one-yak kind of place.”
Getting there and around Many airlines fly to Kathmandu, and some have healthy baggage allowances, which is great for bikes. Look to Emirates or Qatar Airways.
Getting from Kathmandu to Pokhara is best done by a national flight. There are various airlines and many flights on this route every day at around us$120 each way (35 minutes). Yeti Airlines ( yetiairlines.com) is a good choice here. The ktm domestic terminal is a five-minute walk uphill from the main international terminal.
It is possible to take a bus or minibus, which takes around nine hours. This option is much cheaper (around $25), but is often uncomfortable and cramped.
To get to Mustang, you should take one of the morning flights from Pokhara (around us$100 each way). It takes just 20 minutes. On a clear day, you get some of the best mountain views on Earth. Riding at least half of the way back is a good choice.
Where to stay Pokhara is crammed with small hotels and guesthouses of every possible standard, with most being around the main lakeside area. The best option is to book through one of the sites online, and then look around when you arrive. For around $15, you will get a reasonable ensuite room in a budget place. Expect double that amount for mountain views and more comfort.
In Mustang, prices rise with the altitude (around 30 per cent) and things are a tad more basic.
Food and drink Pokhara has a wide selection of great restaurants – both Nepalese and international. Even up in Mustang, you will see just about everything possible on menus, although the reality may be far from authentic when it comes to western dishes.
Most Nepalese eat dalbhat at least twice a day, and rarely try anything else. Dalbhat is basically a Thali-style dish with rice and small servings of various fresh vegetables, and often a meat curry and dal. Expect to pay around $8 to $12 for a meal, plus drinks. Visas and permits If you can get to a Nepal Embassy to get a visa in advance, that’s great. For most nationalities, visas for as long as three months are available at the airport on arrival, but it can be a slow process. Be sure to have U.S. dollars to pay for visas, and also always have a stash of recent passport photos. To enter Lower Mustang and the Annapurna region, you will need a Trekkers’ Information Management Systems (tims) card, which you must get at the small office in Pokhara or Kathmandu before setting off. This is easy and cheap to arrange (around us$20). Check out timsnepal.com. If you want to visit Upper Mustang, then things are a lot more expensive and complicated. The paperwork is best done through a tour company. You need to be part of a tour group. The permit fee is us$500 for 10 days.
When to go Weather and conditions vary dramatically throughout the year, and in different regions of Nepal. Peak season for tourism is October to May, with a lull around Christmas time.
June to September is monsoon time: not great for visiting Pokhara or Mustang (which does not get much rain, but can be cut off). Air pollution is becoming a serious issue throughout Nepal, especially after long dry spells, when forest fires flare up.
The prime time for Pokhara seems to be from September to November. After that, you could strike unlucky with air pollution (as I did), although a good rain will clear things for a week or so at a time. Mustang should be good to ride right through the dry season.
Guidelines Pokhara really has established itself as something of a mountain bike mecca. Right out of town you have some superb trails of just about every grade – all natural and not rising too high. Pokhara is also the gateway to some of Nepal’s best riding. With Mustang less than half an hour away by air, Pokhara makes for a great base. The best riding in Mustang is definitely in Lower Mustang, but you really will need a guide to be able to find the prime singletrack routes. Pokhara is very well set up for bikers, with Pokhara Mountain Bike Adventure ( nepalmountainbike.com) leading the way in all aspects. The company is very much dedicated to all-mountain covers some XC.